The other night I was sitting at home minding my own business when I came across Al Jazeera English's "Inside Iraq" program online. There for the world to see was an American describing Arabs as "barbarians" and Islam a "crazy ideology." President Bush, he said, courageously "planted some flowers" of democracy in the Middle East when U.S. troops invaded Iraq.
I quickly looked at the time stamp on the program thinking I found something from the 2004 archives of Al Jazeera. No. Jack Burkman, a Republican strategist who does spin control for disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and toes the Republican Party line on foreign policy, was speaking in the here and now. Burkman told his disbelieving host and fellow guests -- British journalist Robert Fisk and Iraqi analyst Anas Altikriti -- that the Middle East needs to be cleaned up of dictators. He also said that oil, not weapons of mass destruction, was the true motive behind the invasion. Nobody in the U.S. government, he said, cares about Egypt or Syria because those countries have nothing to offer.
Okay, so Burkman articulates what Arabs have known all along. But the curious thing about this second-string Beltway insider is that Al Jazeera would put this guy on the air in the first place. Al Jazeera has fallen into the same trap as the American media by booking individuals with extreme viewpoints, taking off the gloves and allowing the blood to spill.
The unintended consequence of booking people with questionable credentials and outrageous opinions to draw viewers is that Western extremism is legitimized. If on American television we broadcast a Muslim extremist's point of view, say, that car bombings are a legitimate form of warfare to repel foreign invaders from Muslim lands, a media firestorm would ensue and the hapless Islamic extremist would disappear into a black hole.
Mainstream book publishers with a long record of publishing thought-provoking analysis on world events in general and American foreign policy in particular now recognize that Western extremism can be profitable.
Simon & Schuster has published commendable biographies and autobiographies of Barack and Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Afghan women's activist Malalai Joya and Clara Rojas, who was held captive for more than 2,000 days by Colombian terrorists. But the publisher now includes Muslim haters Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, American advocates of the extinction of Islam, in their roster of authors. Simon & Schuster apparently believes Geller and Spencer's argument that Obama is waging war on his own country.
Spencer, in fact, purports to be an Islamic scholar although he has no formal education in the field. He enjoys U.S. government tax breaks as a non-profit organization dedicated to Islamic scholarship. Yet his website and public speeches are screeds against Islam much in the same vein as Burkman's view that Islam is a "crazy ideology" anchored hopelessly anchored in the 6th century.
Spencer's promotion of "Draw Muhammad (peace be upon him) Day" further solidifies Western extremism directed toward Muslims. "Draw Muhammad Day" was promoted on Facebook last month in reaction to Comedy Central deciding not to air a South Park cartoon parody of the prophet following a threat from a fringe Islamic website. Billed as championing free speech and standing up to the excesses of Islamic extremists, artists were invited to submit artwork of the prophet to Facebook.
Scores of entries were submitted with every single one depicting hateful images. Freedom of speech to the organizers and artists was simply an excuse to vent anti-Muslim sentiments. Not one image portrayed the prophet in a positive or neutral light, or even attempted to emulate the well-known 16th century Turkish Islamic artwork.
Muslim extremists and their unhinged followers should assume some responsibility for fostering the rise of Western extremism (although Muslim extremists don't enjoy the same benefits of being published by Simon & Schuster et al). Westerners have learned a few lessons from Al Qaeda, which virtually pioneered the use of the Internet to further their cause through terrorism. Spencer, for example, often adopts the language of Al Qaeda when advocating the elimination of Islam. Yet long before Al Qaeda came about, extremism was alive and well in the U.S. It's woven into the fabric of American history.
The Ku Klux Klan, the original American terrorist organization, virtually legalized murder, kept racial segregation alive for decades and spawned neo-Nazism. Anti-Semite Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, had his radio show in the 1930s. Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined lives simply by hinting that individuals may be communists. Today, the Internet has created thousands of new Klansmen, Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthys. The difference, however, is they get book deals and are interviewed by Wolf Blitzer to spread their hate.
All of these folks have a voice and all have been legitimized by mainstream television news. And yes, that includes Al Jazeera.